CHE 3 HUNGARIAN-LANGUAGE HIGHER EDUCATION IN ROMANIA AND SLOVAKIA
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Aug 4 14:22:00 UTC 2004
>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education issue dated May 21, 2004
In Central Europe, Changing Attitudes
As nationalism wanes, ethnic Hungarians establish their own universities
By COLIN WOODARD
Visitors crossing the international bridge from Komarom, Hungary, to
Komarno, Slovakia, sometimes experience a disorienting sense of deja vu.
Despite traveling over the broad Danube and through two sets of border
posts, one still hears Hungarian in this river port's squares,
restaurants, and cafes, reads it in newspapers and magazines on sale at
kiosks, and in the very names emblazoned on the town's bilingual street
signs. Near the bridge is a park dedicated to the Hungarian composer Franz
Lehr, while the statue of the nationalist Hungarian poet and novelist Mr
Jkai presides over the entrance to the town museum.
It is not surprising that Komrno feels Hungarian. Until the end of World
War I, Slovakia was ruled from Budapest, and Komrno and Komrom were one
city, straddling the Danube like a smaller Budapest. Even today, the
farming villages dotting the flat floodplains of South Slovakia are
populated almost entirely by ethnic Hungarians, who comprise 70 percent of
Komrno's citizenry and more than 10 percent of Slovakia's population of
But Hungarians in Slovakia have few opportunities to pursue higher
education in Hungarian, their native tongue, a situation that their
political leaders have long blamed for the marked shortage of Hungarian
university graduates. According to official figures, ethnic Hungarians in
Slovakia are only half as likely to have university degrees as ethnic
After Austria-Hungary's defeat in World War I, Hungary's borders were
redrawn, ceding lands that now comprise Slovakia and parts of Romania,
Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia. Today some three-million ethnic
Hungarians still live in these countries, most of them in Romania and
Except in extremely remote areas of Romania, Hungarians who live outside
of Hungary are generally fluent in the state language, their second
tongue. But they appear to be at a disadvantage in competitive university
entrance exams, which are given in the state language.
"You have to deal with the severe undereducation of this country's
Hungarian inhabitants," says Edit Bauer, a prominent ethnic-Hungarian
member of Slovakia's parliament. "South Slovakia is in a very, very hard
way, with very high unemployment and failed industries. It will be
impossible for this region to develop as long as its people are unable to
get the education they need."
That may be about to change, however. If all goes according to plan, a new
Hungarian-language public university will open in Komrno this fall, the
first such institution to be established here since the First World War.
And while the arrival of Jnos Selye University is greeted with great
enthusiasm by ethnic Hungarians, it continues to irritate Slovak
nationalists, who see it as a step toward the "Hungarianization" of a
region once ruled by Hungarians.
Nationalists on the Defensive
Dusan Caplovic, a member of parliament with the Smer Party and a leading
critic of the new university, described its creation as a "provincial and
But today it is the nationalists who are on the defensive in this part of
the world, where politicians are increasingly focusing more on integration
into the European Union than on the ethnic conflicts that have triggered
diplomatic crises, riots, and wars. Perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of
this noticeable change in attitudes are the millions of ethnic Hungarians
living in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Romania, for whom an increase in
Hungarian-language university programs has long been a key demand.
During the early 1990s, nationalist politicians like Slovakia's Vladimr
Meciar and Romania's Gheorghe Funar built political careers on popular
fears of a Hungarian takeover of South Slovakia and Transylvania, a
Romanian province that is home to 1.6 million ethnic Hungarians. But the
slow rapprochement between Hungary and its neighbors -- and the political
strength of the region's ethnic Hungarian parties -- has led to
considerable progress in higher-education matters, experts in the region
"There's clearly been a change in attitudes on these issues," says Mria
Fab, a spokesperson for the Jnos Selye University Foundation, which
organized the university in Komrno and helps raise money for it. "But the
Hungarian political parties' participation in the coalition government
here really paved the way for the university."
Jnos Selye University, which was officially established in January, will
start offering classes in the fall, assuming it receives accreditation on
time. The university intends to open three divisions -- teacher training,
economics, and theology -- but accreditation could be held up because of a
shortage of qualified Hungarian-speaking professors. Ms. Fb says the
institution will probably have to rely on a large number of visiting
professors from Hungary at first, but hopes to develop its own cadre of
academics over time.
If successful, the new university will join a Komrno branch campus called
the Jnos Selye University Center, which is jointly operated by the
Budapest University of Economic Sciences and the Budapest Technical
University. Some 700 students study at the branch campus, earning degrees
from Hungary that are recognized in Slovakia. The new university will add
300 more openings and several new subjects and, unlike the branch campus,
does not charge its students tuition fees.
"It's a very good turn of events that this publicly funded university
could be established in Slovakia," says ndrs Kirly of Hungary's Government
Office for Hungarians Abroad, in Budapest. When the university opens, he
says, the institutional framework for Hungarian-language education in the
neighboring countries will be more or less complete, allowing the focus to
shift to ensuring "the highest quality education at those institutions."
Hungarians in Romania
For the past three years, ethnic Hungarians in Romania have also had their
own university, ending a longstanding debate about whether such a
university should exist there. The Sapientia Hungarian University of
Transylvania, in Cluj, is a private institution financed in large part by
the Hungarian government, which spends $6-million to $7-million a year to
support the university, and by Partium Christian University in the border
town of Oradea.
In the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine -- home to 180,000 Hungarians --
the Hungarian state also supports a private teacher-training college,
founded in 1996. Only in Serbia, where Hungarians number about 300,000,
has Hungarian-language higher education shrunk, a legacy of Slobodan
Milosevic's divisive policies.
Proponents of Sapientia University, which enrolls 1,800 students in Cluj
and three satellite campuses in other Hungarian population centers in
Transylvania, say it is essential for the cultural survival of
"These institutions are critical in that they train professionals --
teachers, doctors, computer specialists, and so forth -- that these
communities need to develop and survive," says Tams Papp of the
Budapest-based Hungarian Human Rights Foundation, which raises funds and
in-kind support for Sapientia and Selye from ethnic Hungarians in North
America. "It's important that Hungarians have control over their own
higher-education administration," he continues, "because otherwise they
are at the mercy of the majority population." The government or the
university senate could withdraw these minority-education possibilities at
any time, Mr. Papp says.
For gota Juhsz, a second-year student, Sapientia offered the only
possibility to study filmmaking in Transylvania and in her native
language. "To understand, analyze, and learn things," she says, "it's much
better to do it in your mother tongue because that's the language in which
you are thinking."
Ms. Juhsz, who already holds a university degree in biology from
Sapientia's competitor, Babes-Bolyai University, says that language was
not the sole reason she chose Sapientia. "Of course, I am Hungarian, but
my nationality is not my major motivation," she says. Rather, Ms. Juhsz
hopes to pioneer the making of nature documentaries in Romania, and
Sapientia offered the best chance to do that.
The university has had its critics in Romania. Gheorghe Funar, the
nationalist mayor of Cluj, has long railed against everything from
Hungarian-language signs to the expansion of Hungarian-language classes at
Babes-Bolyai University, Transylvania's principle state university. While
he has no direct power over higher education, Mr. Funar has prevented
Sapientia University from putting up a bilingual sign by refusing to issue
the required permits, and repeatedly warns that the institution is part of
a plot to return the region to Hungarian rule.
Not all the skepticism comes from nationalists. Andrei Marga, Romania's
education minister from 1998 to 2000, supported the expansion of
Hungarian-language programs when he was rector of Babes-Bolyai University.
But while he is a proponent of minority rights, he has long argued against
a separate Hungarian university in Romania. As education minister, he
opposed efforts to create a public Hungarian university, saying it might
become a source of interethnic conflict such as that seen in the former
But under Mr. Marga's leadership, Babes-Bolyai itself became a truly
multicultural institution, with 16 of its 20 academic divisions offering
Hungarian-language sections. Some 5,000 of the university's 25,000
students study in these sections, which are administered by ethnic
Hungarian faculty members who enjoy considerable autonomy in hiring and
curriculum issues, according to Lszl Nagy, one of two Hungarian vice
rectors at Babes-Bolyai.
"I think the presence of a multicultural university and the separate
Hungarian university is a good thing," Mr. Nagy says. "Of course we
compete for the same students, but between us there are now practically as
many places available in Transylvania as there are Hungarian young people
wishing to study at university."
Mr. Farkas of Sapientia agrees, noting that his institution tries to
supplement, not duplicate, programs at Babes-Bolyai. "Together," he says,
"we are in a position to really improve the higher-education possibilities
for the Hungarian community here."
HUNGARIAN-LANGUAGE HIGHER EDUCATION IN ROMANIA AND SLOVAKIA
Volume 50, Issue 37, Page A41
Copyright 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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